The Year in World Literature The Year in World Literature (Vol. 119)

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The Year in World Literature (Vol. 119)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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The Year in World Literature by William Riggan

Despite the awarding of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature to a European—the Portuguese novelist José Saramago—and the presentation of the 1998 Neustadt Prize for Literature to an anglophone African—the Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah—the prevailing international winds came from the East in the literary year 1998, with strong showings from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia leading the way.

The first-ever English version of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's November 1916 appeared as the second "knot" in the Russian Nobel laureate's monumental epic The Red Wheel, a vivid and sweeping panorama of Imperial Russia at war on the eve of revolution, from an author dubbed by one critic as "the dominant writer of the twentieth century." From humble huts and dingy urban apartments to the opulent drawing rooms and palaces of the Czar, from the dark dens of revolutionary conspirators to the command posts of the top army brass, and from the horror and chaos of the front lines to the gritty, mundane reality of everyday life in the metropolis—Solzhenitsyn's novel has it all, and yet manages, amid its thousand pages of exhaustive and often exhausting detail, to convey in clear and utterly convincing fashion the complete incalculability and noninevitability of events we know are to come. The overall achievement is as masterful as anything the reclusive Russian author has yet done in fiction and compares favorably with such monumental nineteenth-century masterworks as War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov.

Solzhenitsyn's younger countryman Victor Pelevin, perhaps the most gifted serious writer of post-Soviet Russia, published an English edition of his hiply ironic and frequently grotesque Russian Booker Prize-winning prose collection, A Werewolf in Central Russia and Other Stories. Among the types and individuals featured in Pelevin's tales are a public-restroom employee unable to rid herself of her workplace's stench even after its post-1989 makeover as an upscale underground clothing store, a student who drifts through life in various states of sleep and somnolence, and a collection of villagers who eagerly await transformation into werewolves, when their senses will be magnified to euphoric dimensions.

In The Ultimate Intimacy the Czech novelist Ivan Klíma uses the illicit affair between a Protestant pastor and a beautiful and intelligent but precariously balanced woman in his congregation to explore such themes as hope, guilt, and the search for true, close human contact. Told largely in the reverential, confessional tones of the pastor's personal diary, the novel slowly but convincingly reveals the ultimate intimacy as being reached only when one human being confides everything to another with no demand for or expectation of reciprocity. None of the characters here ever reaches or attains such intimacy, of course, but the ideal is clearly implicit from their sometimes noble, often ignoble failures.

Klíma's countryman Pavel Kohout's 1995 novel The Widow Killer made its debut in the West in 1998. A gripping thriller, the work also possesses an unusual and compelling moral intelligence as it follows its two protagonists—an idealistic young Prague detective and a Gestapo "liaison" officer assigned to the city's police force—in their search for a sadistic serial killer as the war and the German occupation grind slowly to an end and the Russian "liberators" move inexorably toward the Czech capital.

From the files of the late Serbian writer Danilo Kiš came Early Sorrows, a cluster of nineteen linked stories mixing childhood memories and fiction and centering on the experiences of a young Jewish boy in a Yugoslav village during the years prior to World War II. Kiš's compatriate Milorad Pavi—of Dictionary of the Khazars fame—brought out Last Love in Constantinople (in both Serbian and English), an intricately structured "tarot novel" that seeks to imitate such fractured-narrative classics as Cortázar's

(The entire section is 2,596 words.)